by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A good many of the posts on this blog in the “From Point A to Point B” series have dealt with early aviation in greater Los Angeles and its atmospheric rise taking placer as the region grew dramatically. After the famous Los Angeles International Air Meet of January 1910, interest and investment in aviation grew dramatically, for civilian, commercial and, especially during World War I with such examples as the balloon training school at Arcadia’s Ross Field, military purposes.
In the film world, which burgeoned right along with aviation and other regional endeavors, there were some figures who played a major role in the growth of flight. For example, Cecil B. DeMille launched his Mercury Aviation Corporation, the subsidiary of which was Mercury Air Lines, which offered to San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Catalina Island for a couple of years starting in 1921.
Early as this was, however, there was a precursor from another prominent personage from the movie industry. Syd Chaplin (1885-1965) was the older half-brother of legendary comedian and filmmaker Charles Chaplin and the former came to Hollywood to join the latter and became an actor and comedian with some substantial success. Moving into helping to manage his brother’s career, however, Syd Chaplin also developed a strong aviation interest.
In May 1919, he formed his namesake Syd Chaplin Aviation Corporation which operated out of the Chaplin Aerodrome, which was advertised as being in the recently established Beverly Hills, rapidly becoming a mecca for film industry people, but was actually at the southwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Crescent Avenue, soon Fairfax Avenue, with expansion taking place at the northwest corner.
The Chaplin company not only offered flights to Catalina Island and Coronado Island, where the famed hotel is next to San Diego, but it was also established as a distributor of aircraft and motors built by the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the founder of which was Glenn Curtiss, winner of the first international air meet, held in France in 1909, and who was, along with Louis Paulhan and Charles Willard, a main aviator at the 1910 contest in this area. Chaplin’s firm took over the Curtiss enterprise.
Chaplin’s enterprise lasted not much more than a year-and-a-half or so, but one of his partners was Emery (sometimes spelled Emory) H. Rogers, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, near Chicago, in 1893, but who was raised in the Boston area, where his father was trustee of his own father’s estate, built on an iron dealing business. Rogers’ father died of tuberculosis in 1904 and his mother then married Harry Gorham, who was a bank president at Santa Monica.
Rogers, who married Eleanor Hamlin while he was attending the University of California at Berkeley, learned to fly at the North Island field on Coronado and found his calling. During the First World War, in January 1918, he was a reserve aviator for the military and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. During the conflict, he trained and then became an instructor in the air corps in Texas, Louisiana and Georgia and was promoted to first lieutenant by war’s end.
While he quickly joined forces with Chaplin after his January 1919 discharge, the two disagreed about how to operate the business, so Rogers left and formed a new enterprise with his uncle W.P. Halliday, Jr. and J.B. Webster by acquiring the Pacific Airplane and Supply Company of Venice. The firm retained its name for a time with Emory as president and general manager and also purchased the Chaplin Aerodrome, as well as the hangars and equipment of De Mille’s Mercury Aviation Company.
The Los Angeles Times of 10 December 1920 reported that Rogers offered free use of the airfield to the City of Los Angeles for two years and Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, soon to leave office, was quoted as stating,
Los Angeles has made no arrangement for a permanent air port at this time, and pending such action I wish to accept the privilege offered of affording us a municipal landing field.
It was added that, once the City had a municipal airport, the federal government was likely to recognize Los Angeles as a Pacific Coast terminal point for transcontinental air mail service, which was expected to be developed in the near future. With respect to a permanent city airport, however, that did not come until near the end of the decade with the establishment of Mines Field, now Los Angeles International Airport. Incidentally, an early passenger on a flight from the Rogers firm and the field was legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, whose determination to learn to fly was cemented with her trip.
One of the areas of city government quickly made use of at what became known as Rogers Airport was policing by air and Rogers and a couple of other pilots became volunteer pilots for the Los Angeles Police Department. The 4 January 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Express reported that
The Los Angeles police department opened its aerial attack upon the legion of crooks today, when an airplane police patrol for this city was authorized by the board of police commissioners . . . According to arrangements which have already been completed, Aerial Patrolman Rogers, or one of his aides will be in constant communication with central police headquarters.
The craft was to be a military one of the type used in combat during the late war and, remarkably, “will be armed with machine guns,” though it is not known if these were ever contemplated for use, much less actually utilized.
In early May, the paper reported that Rogers, ever given to performing stunts, performed a flight at 1,000 feet and then landing while blindfolded to prove that, provided a co-pilot assisted, such sightless flying could be done. The flight was recorded by motion picture cameras with newspaper journalists riding in another plane that followed Rogers. Later that month, war hero aviator Eddie Rickenbacker, who was building airplanes in Oakland, crashed at Rogers while attempting a two-day transcontinental flight.
Promotion of Rogers’ company, which took his name in September 1921 after a merger with Mercury was finalized, and field, which expanded to about 100 acres, involved taking advantage of his moviedom and military connections. Earlier in the year, for example, a benefit air show was held for the newly established Disabled American Veterans of the World War, while film actors and others in that industry frequently flew at or took lessons with the company at its airport. In May, the Alhambra Theatre teamed up with Rogers to airdrop 30,000 tickets for either a free flight or admission to a movie at the venue
Elsewhere, there was an Aviation Night at the Green Mill Gardens on Washington Boulevard at National Boulevard in Culver City, where famous flyers appeared in person and free flights given away, courtesy of Rogers, denoted as “the king of the sky.” For weeks during summer and fall 1921, the Times had journalist Georgia Rose take flying lessons at Rogers, which then boasted of having some 50,000 flights in the previous two-and-a-half years, and write a series of columns about it and her impressions of aviation broadly.
In November, Rogers teamed up with the Aero Club of California for a ball at the recently opened Ambassador Hotel where “Aviatra, the Queen of Flying” was to be crowned and this was yet another way to promote his business. Incidentally, the director of the contest was Elizabeth Wood Stack, daughter of opera singers Charles Modini Wood and Mamie Perry, whose father was the prominent 19th century lumber business owner William H. Perry, and she happened to be the mother of 2-year old, Robert, who would become a prominent film and television star.
At the end of that month, however, disaster struck when Rogers was killed while racing another pilot and trying to execute a sharp turn at a very low altitude. Theories varied, including one nearby auto driver who claimed that the pilot crashed trying to avoid a collision with his vehicle, while others thought that Rogers, who was prone to dizziness, fainted during the maneuver, which caused the crash. The 27-year old was pulled from the wreckage, with his wife collapsing at the site, and rushed to the hospital, but, with nearly every bone in his body broken, Rogers died within a couple of hours.
Despite the tragedy, the company and the field forged on, led primarily by Webster, and among the early post-Rogers endeavors was having the Western Airway Company use the field, in 1922, for daily flights to San Francisco, as well as service to Bakersfield from another short-lived firm. Flights to show potential buyers what their new home could be were also provided via a bird’s-eye view, while the company allowed land at the airport site for a summer 1923 power and transportation show. The great real estate boom that erupted about the time that Rogers was making his name in regional aviation came to the airport area with such developments as Carthay Center, where the renowned theater of that name was later built, and, specifically, the Wilshire-Fairfax tract, which was launched in fall 1923.
Facing the inevitable, the Rogers company decided to find a new location and it relocated, early in 1924, to Western Avenue and Ballona Avenue, now El Segundo Boulevard, though the address was later denoted as Western and 125th Street, in what is the West Athens neighborhood of Los Angeles and where the Chester Washington Golf Course is today.. An important branch of work for the firm became taking aerial photographs for publication in local newspapers, principally the newly launched Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, which debuted in September 1923. Meanwhile, flying lessons and special local flights for sightseers continued to be offered.
Another move came in March 1927 to a larger site at Angeles Mesa Drive (Crenshaw Boulevard) and Santa Barbara Avenue (Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) in the Baldwin Hills area and the third field was occasionally used for thrilling air battle recreations for films and was even the scene of some strange police activity, including the first arrests for drunken flying by pilots and the nabbing of a man who wanted to convince a woman to marry him and flew her (it was originally suggested it was a kidnapping) to Rogers, where he was taken into custody and then released when she refused to press charges.
In April 1927, the first Los Angeles air show was held at the airport and one of the dignitaries to appear was Boyle Workman, longtime City Council president and primary candidate (unsuccessfully) for mayor. A variety of craft were exhibited, but bigger news on that front came that summer when the Ford-Stout all-metal tri-motor airliner with a passenger capacity of twelve arrived at Rogers. Soon, Maddux Air Lines began offering flights from the airport to San Diego and back.
By the time, the photo featured here was taken, showing an elderly couple with headgear and goggles on and a mechanic working on a plane behind them, the Rogers company was about eight years old. The inscription on the reverse reads, “Just before the flight. No evidence of petrification of the nerves.” Yet, the facility and the company were already on a downward trend, probably because of increasing competition both from airlines and better airports, including Mines Field, which opened in 1928 and hosted a national air races meet that September. The last that could be located of activity at Rogers was in 1933, but the airport and company were foundational to the success of regional aviation and this photo is a great artifact about that early history of flight in our area.